Sometimes records attain legendary status because they’ve been long unavailable and to hear them you have to part with a week’s wages for a dusty slab of vinyl. Their status is derived from their scarcity as much as their quality. Some records though are as precious as they are rare. Candi Staton is a case in point. There aren’t many old soul records as highly regarded, yet as elusive as the singles and albums that Candi recorded for FAME Records of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but one listen to the sides she cut there and you’ll know that these records deserve all their acclaim and more.
There’s little in the soul canon that matches the strength and beauty of the work Candi produced during her six years recording at FAME. The songs are masterpieces of the genre, the musicianship often astounding, the production perfectly tailored. On top of it all sits Candi’s voice, an instrument of unsurpassed grace and sensuality that weaves its way through the songs with gentle strength and undeniable dignity. Candi’s voice is honeyed with experience, the experience of loving and of living, of loving and of losing. To be able to sing of love with such clarity, honesty and compassion is a rare gift indeed.
Rick Hall, owner of FAME Records, was looking for a female blues singer at the time he met Candi, at the end of the nineteen-sixties — someone with whom he could duplicate the success he’d had recording Etta James and hits like I’d Rather Go Blind. Muscle Shoals had become as important as Memphis in the world of southern soul. Memphis had Stax, but Muscle Shoals had FAME (which stood for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises). As a record label FAME could not match Stax, but as a recording studio it was at least its equal, with a pool of musicians and songwriters as strong as anywhere. Aretha Franklin recorded some of her greatest sides there, and Wilson Pickett cut classics like Hey Jude at the studio. Candi couldn’t have found a better setting.
The records Candi made at FAME are some of the finest examples of what is known now as southern soul. Tough, funky, dirty, soulful and proud, they still sound immense today. The sound is more complex than that of hits that had previously come out of other southern studios like Stax. Rick Hall’s production is strong and driving, the band metallic and harsh, especially on the faster numbers. When the band eases up for the ballads the playing is precise and intelligent. There’s not a single note wasted or out of place. You can hear the understanding between band and singer. You can hear the pleasure they must have taken in their work. ‘We had a lot of fun. It was like a family gathering. We’d sit around and eat pizza, some people liked to drink, some people smoked, different things were going on but the music was serious. We knew when to cut out foolishness.’
When Rick recorded Candi he always made her sing each song over and over again to exaggerate the rasp in her voice. ‘Rick didn’t always understand his singers, he thought that everybody should be hoarse, that in order to sing soulfully you had to have a gruff voice. So he used to work me until my throat was absolutely irritated to get the sound he wanted.’
Taking on a classic like That’s How Strong My Love Is, Candi is the equal of such earlier interpreters as O.V. Wright and Otis Redding, and when it comes to singing there really is no higher praise. Her voice manages to combine great strength and vulnerability at the same time. Even at its most desolate or empowered there’s a softness to her singing that makes her stand out. Candi always sounds like she’s talking to you, confiding in you. She sounds like a friend.
Musical boundaries in the South were never as firm as one might imagine. Candi grew up in Klan country but she’d still listen to white country singers like Ernest Tubb on the radio. Country music informed her singing as much as gospel. White southern songwriters like Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham grew up listening to Ray Charles and Hank Williams both, and so did black artists like Candi. No amount of hate and prejudice could segregate the airwaves. If it made you feel good, it was right. ‘I’m from Alabama; we grew up with country music. It’s part of my heritage and I still sing country songs today.’ Indeed some of Candi’s biggest hits came with versions of country songs. Her version of In The Ghetto even prompted Elvis to send a letter expressing his admiration.
Life doesn’t always make sense. It isn’t always easy to understand. Emotions can overwhelm you. Sometimes you can’t find the right words within yourself to tell you where you are. There are records that can tell you though. Records that through some alchemy of voice, words and music bring you right home to that place where it all makes sense, where everything is clear. Records that shine a light into the darkness. Today, over thirty years after they were recorded, the songs on this compilation shine as bright as ever.